Experiencing Stravinsky: A Listener’s Companion
by Robin Maconie
The Scarecrow Press, Inc
£27.95 Hard Cover (£20.50 Kindle Edition) 244pp.
Experiencing Stravinsky by Robin Maconie is
a challenging book. Its focus lies somewhere between analysis and introduction.
‘Descriptive’ would be the best adjective. The reader will
immediately notice that there is not a single musical example given
between the covers of this book. There are no charts or diagrams illustrating
formal divisions of works, harmonic structures or serial processes.
They will also note that this book is not a ‘biography’,
although there is plenty of biographical information given. Whilst much
space is devoted to discussion of individual works, these are not programme
notes as such. The main thrust of the book is, I believe, a study in
The author uses allusion, analogy, imaginary conversations and quotations
from the writings and interviews of the composer to try to understand
the major works in the Stravinsky canon. He considers the music from
a ‘holistic’ point of view. What political events affected
the composer? What was the impact of mechanical devices such are the
piano-player, the gramophone, reel-to-reel tape recorders and even computers
on the composer’s music? And perhaps most significantly, what
was the impact of Hollywood?
Igor Stravinsky’s life was lived out during years of massive change
-from a time when there were no automobiles, no aircraft, no recorded
music and no radio, to man landing on the Moon, Concorde, the beginning
of the information technology revolution and the wide-spread dissemination
of music by record and tape. Politically, he lived through two World
Wars, a number of revolutions, the American Dream and the threat of
nuclear holocaust. Artistically, Stravinsky collaborated with diverse
artistic talent that included Diaghilev, Disney, Picasso and Chaplin.
All these factors impacted on Stravinsky’s music. It is the composer’s
response to these events that forms the main study of this book.
This is not the place to do a full literature review of books concerning
Igor Stravinsky; however I propose to mention a few volumes that I have
considered useful in gaining an understanding of his life and music.
The most helpful book from the point of view of the serious listener
is Eric Walter White’s The Composer and his Works, published
in 1966 and revised and updated in 1979. I always refer to this book
before listening to any work, favourite or new discovery (for me). It
is basically written in two massive sections - ‘The Man’
and ‘A Register of Works’. In spite of the fact that supporting
information is somewhat dated and that much has been achieved in Stravinsky
scholarship in the past 33 years, this is still a hugely relevant book.
The most current biographical studies are the three volumes by Stephen
Walsh - The Music of Stravinsky (1988), Stravinsky: A Creative
Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934 (1999) and Stravinsky: The
Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971 (2006). It is strange
that these three essential volumes are not mentioned in the bibliography
of the present book.
A more basic introduction, which has been on my shelf for nearly 40
years, is Francis John Routh’s Stravinsky (1975/1977) in
the Master Musician Series. Enthusiasts of Stravinsky’s music
will want to explore the vast range of primary material available, including
autobiographical works such as Memories and Commentaries (1960),
Stravinsky in Conversation with Robert Craft (1959), Expositions
and Developments (1962), Dialogues and a Diary (1963), Themes
and Episodes (1966), and Retrospectives and Conclusions (1969).
Stravinsky's letters have been published as Selected Correspondence
in three volumes (1982-1985) and edited by Robert Craft.
Experiencing Stravinsky is a relatively short book covering the
ground in 243 pages. After the ‘series foreword’ by Gregg
Akkerman - this book would appear to be the first in the series - the
author introduces his subject and the methodology for approaching it.
In the main part this book examines the composer’s work chronologically:
ten chapters are devoted to exploring the music of different periods
of the composer’s opus. All references and notes are placed towards
the end. There is a ‘select’ bibliography which ranges quite
a distance from Stravinskian matters - including references to a book
by Woody Allen, a study of Maori music by Johannes Andersen and William
Ellis’ An Authentic Narrative of a Voyage Performed by Captain
Cook and Captain Clarke (1783). With the above-noted omissions all
the most important books appear to be included. The ‘Select Listening’
listings are derived from the author’s personal ‘reference
collection’ and are ‘intended to draw attention to rare,
meritorious, historic and unusual items.’ Some of these items
are not included in the essential Sony Composer’s Edition. Finally,
there is a comprehensive index which includes people and place. Stravinsky’s
musical works are listed in strict alphabetical order.
Robin Maconie was born in 1942 in Auckland, New Zealand and is ideally
qualified to write this book. He studied analysis with Olivier Messiaen
in 1963-4 at the Paris Conservatoire. Later his studies turned to film
music with Bernd-Alois Zimmermann and electronic music under Herbert
Eimart at Cologne Conservatory. In addition, Maconie was a composition
student under Karlheinz Stockhausen and Henri Pousseur. He has led an
active musical life both academically and as a composer with appointments
to the University of Auckland, The University of Surrey and the Savannah
College of Art and Design in Georgia, USA. He now lives and works in
New Zealand. Maconie has written widely on music and has published a
number of books. I was unable to find any examples of his compositions
on the ‘net or in the CD listings.
One of the hardest things to decide when reviewing this book is just
who the intended readership is. On the one hand scholars and enthusiasts
will have access to most of the major biographical and musical studies.
On the other hand, interested listeners will typically approach Stravinsky’s
music through CD liner notes, concert programme notes and one or two
‘primers’ such as Neil Wenborn’s volume in the ‘Illustrated
Lives’ series: there is plenty of information about the music
on the Internet. For the moment, the answer to this dilemma is answered
by the advertising blurb - ‘Robin Maconie takes a fresh approach
to understanding this great composer’s works, explaining what
makes Stravinsky’s sound so unique and what we, as listeners,
need to know in order to appreciate the variety and brilliance of his
compositions’. This assumption demands to be explored.
In 1972 I was introduced to Stravinsky’s music by way of Feu
d’Artifice (Fireworks) Op.4 (1908). If we examine the author’s
dealing of this work it will give us a good idea of the approach of
Robin Maconie begins by suggesting that Fireworks could be described
as an ‘impressionistic tone poem’ presented as ‘a
series of connected hinged panels, like a Japanese screen.’ So
far so good. The author then proceeds to make an allusion to the paintings
of James McNeill Whistler and that painter’s reference
to Japanese art. He suggests that the music is ‘deliberately exotic’
‘playing on a sense of constant tension between dark and light,
earth and sky, weight and buoyancy, gravity and flight.’ There
follows a short description of the musical progress. For example, there
is the ‘dramatic opening,’ the ‘music simply appears:
up there, in the distance, its rich but spare and lightweight combination
of motifs suggests a minimalist arrangement of brush marks on a Japanese
screen.’ He then suggests that this is a ‘direct challenge
to the bucolic world of Debussy’s L’Après-midi
d’un faune and the languid flute is compared to the to the
‘insolent fire siren and violin figures as unintelligible graffiti
against the night sky’. Further down the text we have allusions
to ‘exotic Scriabinesque chromatics,’ ‘three-voice’
upward glissandi in imitation of Schoenberg. There is a reference to
the orchestration as being ‘cartoon-like’ (Katzenjammer
Kids). Maconie concludes by describing the ‘unprecedented density
of information’ the ‘skill in impressionistic texture creation’
and finally a similitude to ‘a wide-screen movie in such high
definition that the observer is visually saturated...’ Whew!
Immediately the listener has to deal with references to Whistler, Debussy,
Scriabin and Schoenberg … and I have never heard of the Katzenjammer
Kids. Either the author assumes that the reader will have these
allusions to ‘hand’ or else they will take the trouble to
look them up. I found this approach a little too dense and demanding.
An introduction should introduce - not force the reader to make a detailed
study and reflection on the text before moving on to the music.
Maconie’s description of the work makes no reference to Rimsky-Korsakov
who is the true artistic muse behind Fireworks. The ‘sitz
in leben’ is not discussed: the work was composed for the marriage
of Rimsky’s daughter Nadezhda to the composer Maximilian Steinberg,
in celebration. The formal structure is not mentioned. Finally the most
important feature of Fireworks is ignored - the abandonment of
the ‘four square’ barring of the music in favour of a more
flexible and asymmetrical structure. Aesthetically there is no attempt
to place this work in Stravinsky’s canon. Was it representative
of his later style? Was it a ‘dead end’? Are there intimations
of Petrushka and the Firebird? The most interesting historical
fact is that it was this work that brought the composer to the notice
of Diaghilev and was the precursor to a historically important collaboration.
Finally, it is useful to note that this work was used for a ‘futurist’
ballet in 1917.
What Robin Maconie has achieved is to supplement my understanding
of this work. He has thrown in a number of allusions and analogies which
may or may not help me towards further appreciate and that is useful.
What he has not done is to present the basic information (who, what,
when, where, why and how) about Fireworks that I would deem necessary
to approach this work for the first time. I derived value from the two
pages of his discussion, but then again I have known this work for 40-odd
years, have heard it countless times, have read it up and followed it
So I guess the readers who will enjoy this book are the keen Stravinsky
enthusiasts who demand more opinion, students writing term papers and
scholars looking for inspiration. It will not, I believe, help the person
approaching the composer for the first time.
The book is a quality production. It is certainly good to have this
as a default hardback: I understand that there is no ‘limp cover’
version available. The publisher has released a Kindle version. I am
not convinced that this is the ideal way of studying a book such as
this, however one must not object to progress. I felt that the text
was clear and the general layout fine. I was a little disappointed that
there were no musical examples, as I believe that the ‘typical’
reader of this book will be able to appreciate this form of illustration.
Talking of illustrations, I guess that I was surprised that the book
contained no photographs. Even half a dozen would have added value.
Some books of this kind include a CD of examples - I think of the Unlocking
the Masters series published by Amadeus Press. This could have been
a useful aid to understanding.
Price-wise this book represents value for money: its cost of £27.95
is largely what I would expect from such a book.
It will make a useful addition to the shelves of Stravinsky enthusiasts.
From an academic point of view, many copies will be purchased for music
libraries. For the lay listener, it would seem that it has not quite
managed to achieve what it sets out to do. The review on Amazon suggests
that ‘Maconie has provided nothing less than an operating manual
to getting the most out of Stravinsky’s music.’ I believe
that although in some ways this statement is true, the general reader
is not likely to be over-impressed, but saturated. The specialist will
read, digest and debate much of this very useful information and opinion;
these readers will simply be using this material to further their understanding
of the music rather than gaining a basic knowledge.
The supplementary knowledge required to engage with this text is considerable.
I found that references to history, art, politics, film studies and
other composers’ music assumed a much greater understanding of
the 20th century intellectual achievement than many music-lovers
will possess. I am not suggesting that a book such as this should be
dumbed-down, but I do wonder if an author can assume that someone wishing
to enjoy the music of Stravinsky on its own terms can expect readers
to have this vast supplementary knowledge.